NASA Spinoff

NASA Technology

Heinz Erzberger never thought the sky was falling, but he knew it could benefit from enhanced traffic control. Throughout the 1990s, Erzberger led a team at Ames Research Center to develop a suite of automated tools to reduce restrictions and improve the efficiency of air traffic control operations. Called CTAS, or Center-TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) Automation System, the software won NASA’s Software of the Year award in 1998, and one of the tools in the suite—the traffic management advisor—was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration and implemented at traffic control centers across the United States. Another one of the tools, Direct-To, has followed a different path.

NASA Technology

“Flutter” may sound like a benign word when associated with a flag in a breeze, a butterfly, or seaweed in an ocean current. When used in the context of aerodynamics, however, it describes a highly dangerous, potentially deadly condition.

NASA Technology

In 1961, not long after NASA received the imperative from President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the Moon within the decade, then-NASA administrator James Webb posed a question to Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Instrumentation Lab. Webb wanted to know if it was possible to create a guidance system that could lead a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth.

Try describing the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), and you will inevitably end up rattling off a series of large numbers. There are more than 87,000 flights—commercial, general aviation, military, chartered, cargo—every day; about 5,000 flights in the air at any given moment; and more than 14,000 air traffic controllers working to manage the safety of all of these flights, including an average of 64 million takeoffs and landings a year (more than 7,000 every hour). In addition, there are more than 19,000 airports; 600 air traffic control facilities; more than 70,000 radar systems, communications relays, and other equipment; and thousands of technicians and safety inspectors. The NAS includes all of these components and others, like the 660 million passengers and 37 billion cargo-revenue tons of freight that crisscross the Nation every year. Even the weather is considered part of the NAS.

Given the eye-catching nature of space shuttle launches, deep-space imagery, and Mars exploration, it can be easy to forget NASA’s aeronautics efforts, which have a daily impact on life within the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. Virtually every flying vehicle in operation today has benefited in some way from NASA advancements, and the helicopter is no exception. In fact, NASA’s involvement in rotorcraft research can be traced back to its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NACA was founded in 1915, less than a decade after the first successful piloted rotorcraft flight in 1907, and made a number of contributions to rotorcraft development—including a series of airfoils that are still employed in some modern vehicles.

In the late 1970s, general aviation (GA) in the United States was experiencing its heyday. In 1978, as many as 18,000 GA aircraft were produced. But only 15 years later, the industry was on the verge of collapse, with fewer than 1,000 aircraft produced in 1993.

From the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the Sun on wings made of wax, to the designs Leonardo da Vinci drew of flying machines that mirrored the wing patterns of birds, people have always dreamed of personal flight. In 1903, on a cold December morning in North Carolina, the Wright brothers made the dream a reality with the first manned flight. It lasted only 12 seconds, but initiated a rapid evolution in aircraft design, and within a few years there was an aircraft industry.

Anyone who has made a paper airplane knows that folding the wingtips upward makes your plane look better and fly farther, though the reasons for the latter might be a mystery. The next time you snag a window seat on an airline flight, check out the plane’s wing. There is a good chance the tip of the wing will be angled upward, almost perpendicular. Or it might bend smoothly up like the tip of an eagle’s wing in flight. Though obviously more complex, these wing modifications have the same aerodynamic function as the folded wingtips of a paper airplane. More than an aesthetically pleasing design feature, they are among aviation’s most visible fuel-saving, performance-enhancing technologies.

The next time you blow out a candle, watch how the smoke behaves. You will see that it rises first in an even stream. At a certain point, that stream begins to break up into swirls and eddies as the smoke disperses.

Every time a jet engine is started, it goes through a thermal cycle of extreme temperatures, reaching as high as 2,700 °F within the engine’s combustor. Over time, the expansion and contraction of engine parts caused by this cycle lead to cracking and degradation that shortens an engine’s lifespan and eventually necessitates costly replacement.


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